Can a piece of writing be so bad that it physically harms the reader? Yes, if it fails what master copywriter Bob Bly calls “the breath test.”
Try this. Have a look below at the first sentence of a column by economist and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. (Yes, that is a single sentence below.) See if you can read the entire thing without stopping to take a breath.
“Despite the historic expansion of the federal government’s involvement in, intervention in, and control of the economy — including Bailout Nation; takeovers of banks, car companies, insurance firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM, Chrysler, and GMAC; large-scale tax threats; overregulation; an attempted takeover of the health-care sector; ultra-easy money; a declining dollar; and unprecedented spending and debt creation — despite all the things that would be expected to destroy the economy — all this socialism lite and the degrading of incentives and rewards for success — despite all this, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed.”
(“Faith in Free-Market Capitalism Is Being Rewarded“ — Dec 30, 2009)
Kudlow is a brilliant former Fed and OMB economist, a gifted speaker and a talented writer. Yet even he fails the breath test here. Sometimes when we’re writing on a topic we’re passionate about, we try to cram too much detail into a single sentence. We can’t help ourselves; we’re excited and we want to get it all out.
But our reader needs to receive our information at a reasonable pace. Even more important, our reader needs oxygen.
As you review your writing, read it aloud and give every sentence the breath test. Remember, your reader can’t take whatever action you want him to take… if he’s passed out or dead.